Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson and John Shoals, a former mayor, have a few things in common. Both are experienced politicians and have served the city for 10 years — Shoals sat 10 years on the council; Peterson has six years on the council and four on the Planning Commission.
They both support Measure K, a $48 million bond for street rehabilitation that voters will decide on Nov. 4.
Both believe the Grover Beach Lodge and Conference Center project, finally moving ahead after years of planning, is a critical piece of the city’s future.
And both are running for mayor on the Nov. 4 ballot.
But that’s where some of the similarities end.
Peterson said she has set herself apart on the council by asking tough questions when others wouldn’t — such as pushing for a review of finances and operations at the troubled South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District.
She said she’s worked to improve the city’s image, championed the installation of fiber-optic cables around town, and fought for improvements to a controversial dust-control rule that was adopted by the county’s air board.
Peterson also stresses a willingness to hear out any citizen or group.
“If an activist or group or any other organization wants to speak to me, I want to hear from them,” she said. “I’m willing to engage with and hear from the community … and if you’re listening to the people with the other point of view, that can be very threatening.”
Shoals argues that Peterson has slowed projects by allowing special interest groups to frame the debate. He noted that his endorsements include the four other members of the current Grover Beach City Council.
“I think that speaks a lot to leadership style and how someone treats their colleagues,” he said. “I believe I am the candidate to unify the council and the community, not divide it.”
In response, Peterson countered, “Here is the government relations liaison from PG&E talking about special interests.”
She said she hasn’t asked anyone for an endorsement, including her fellow council members, because she believes doing so is divisive. She has, however, received a number of unsolicited endorsements, including several from former Grover Beach mayors.
Peterson drew criticism in July 2013 for writing a petition urging repeal of the dust rule without first bringing the issue to the entire City Council. The rule, adopted in November 2011, requires State Parks to reduce particulate pollution from its Oceano Dunes off-highway vehicle park.
For his part, Shoals has had a two-year break from the council and wants to return to see some projects, including the lodge, to fruition. He also wants to come back to “set the right tone” for the city.
“I want to make sure the work we started is done in the right way, in a positive, respectful manner,” Shoals said. “I believe my style is more inclusive.”
Shoals served on the council from 2002-12. Of his four separate stints as mayor, two happened when the mayor’s seat was rotated annually among council members before the city switched to a directly elected mayor with a two-year term.
In his time on the council, Shoals worked with the state on an agreement for the lodge project; helped form the city’s first full-time Fire Department; and adopted a technology master plan that includes the push for fiber-optic cable.
He was the city’s first directly elected mayor in 2008.
Whoever is elected in November will lead a city that’s still recovering from the recession, play a role in efforts to attract more businesses to town, continue ongoing efforts to fix the city’s potholed streets, and help determine how to provide services for its homeless population.
In addition to the mayor’s seat, two council seats are up for election.
Two candidates are running unopposed so have essentially won their seats already: Barbara Nicolls, who serves on the Grover Beach Community Library board and is married to Bill Nicolls, a current councilman who is termed out; and Mariam Shah, who was involved in a volunteer citizens committee that studied a charter ballot measure last year.
Measure K and streets
Both Shoals and Peterson said they’ll vote for a $48 million property tax measure on the Nov. 4 ballot to rehabilitate and reconstruct all 29 miles of residential streets and some of the major thoroughfares.
Peterson said as mayor, she worked with the council to develop a comprehensive street repair plan and place the measure on the ballot.
“The council worked long and hard to develop a measure that would be most cost effective and get the most done,” she said.
Shoals said he’s been working with a committee formed to support the measure and educate the community. He said he’s concerned that the city cut in half the amount of sales tax money that it put toward street rehabilitation projects during the recession.
“I would like to go back and rethink that,” he said. “Whether this bond passes or not, one of the first things I will advocate for is taking some of that money and putting it back on the streets.”
Peterson defended the council’s decision to cut funding, saying it was necessary during the recession to allocate that money to other vital services. In addition, she said, Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated redevelopment agencies, taking away city money that could have been spent on street projects.
Both candidates said they have made progress on economic development and point to the Grover Beach lodge project — a 150-room hotel and conference center that they hope will bring new tax revenue to the city and attract more businesses.
The council approved the lodge project in April. Construction drawings are underway, and the city is developing a financing plan to pay for some public improvements.
But both candidates also said that more needs to be done to improve the local economy.
Peterson said the ultrafast fiber-optic broadband network being installed in the city “will give us another edge” and help to attract more companies to Grover Beach’s industrial area.
Shoals pointed that about half of the city’s $7.3 million general fund budget comes from property tax, with less than $300,000 a year from bed tax paid by visitors to the city’s hotels and other lodging facilities.
“For a coastal city we can do better,” he said.
Shoals added that he wants to simplify and streamline the process for businesses to obtain permits and licenses, and to formalize a process to expedite hotel projects through planning and environmental review.
Peterson and Shoals were both on the council in November 2011 when it unanimously took a position against the county Air Pollution Control District’s dust rule as it was written at that time.
At that time, the council said public health should be a priority but that the rule should be based on scientific data and revised to eliminate fines.
In an interview with The Tribune in mid-September, Peterson said she does not oppose the dust-control rule.
“I don’t have a problem with a rule that enforces scientifically based attempts to improve air quality,” she said. “I had opposed creating legislation that would tie the agency up in litigation.”
She said she advocated for improved oversight and eliminating a permit requirement, which was approved by the air board earlier this year.
Under an agreement approved in March, the requirement for State Parks to obtain a permit was replaced with a dispute resolution process intended to allow the air district and parks officials to work more cooperatively to reduce dust emissions from the park.
However, in July 2013, Peterson wrote a petition urging repeal of the dust rule at the request of a local group of business owners and residents called Grover Beach United.
She was later chided by two council members for distributing information they believed was untrue and for urging repeal of the dust rule without first bringing the issue to the council.
“We were reaching the stage that if something didn’t happen, the dust rule would pass without amendments,” Peterson explained this week. “They (Grover Beach United) wanted to do something to get the board’s attention and put political pressure on the board. I wrote it so it would have accurate information.”
In December 2013, Peterson’s fellow council members removed her as the city’s representative on the air board. She was appointed as the council’s alternate air board representative, but declined that position.
Shoals said in 2011 that he agreed with the rest of the council that the dust rule could be improved. But since it passed, he said, “I’m not going to talk about repealing this rule.”
“II do believe the intent is good,” Shoals added. “We know the dust rule is not perfect, but public health safety and welfare should be the top priority.”
According to her candidate website, Peterson has been endorsed by former Grover Beach mayors Peter Keith, Dave Ekbom and Jack Kean; city Parks, Recreation & Beautification Commissioner Heidi Boatman; as well as numerous Realtors and local residents.
Shoals has been endorsed by current Grover Beach City Council members Bill Nicolls, Jeff Lee, Karen Bright and Glenn Marshall, according to his website. He’s received endorsements from elected officials on both sides of the aisle, including county Supervisors Frank Mecham, Adam Hill and Caren Ray, Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham, and state Sen. Bill Monning.